The level of collaboration present in Deceptive Threads reflects, in a way, the illusion of the individual and static identity. We settle in to watch David Joseph performing on his own, and perform he certainly can, but really what we are seeing is a product of many different minds and bodies, with their passions, personalities and histories culminating here on the stage. This mirrors the life of Joseph’s grandfather, who despite appearing to be a single entity with a straightforward, if not challenging life, is undoubtedly revealed to be a complex web of multiple identities.
The La Mama Theatre has become a history museum, the stage space a corner of the black box with a sewing table and a filing cabinet framing a delicate white cloth that will become a backdrop, a back door, and a visual portal into the past. Hanging above is what appears to be large white cloth balloons, which reveal themselves to be delicious sacks of labneh, straight from David Joseph’s family kitchen. From behind the white cloth emerges a mystical figure with a sharp tongue, guiding the audience into the conceptual space of threads; strings of time and identity that are more fragile than first thought. Swiftly Joseph dons another appearance, this time a wise talking detective straight off the streets of New York. We meet for a brief moment, but together these caricatures appear to be purely a reminder that in telling us these stories, Deceptive Threads will be breaking down the barrier between fact and fiction. The story of Joseph’s forefathers will approach surreality and censorship the more we learn.
The collaboration between Karen Berger and David Joseph proves to be a remarkable effort. In such a compact space and time, Deceptive Threads transports us from Lebanon to Toowoomba, to Parliament and the borders, where the racist immigration policies of the Australian government leave countless innocent people languishing. What started as David Joseph’s journey researching his ancestors very quickly unearthed how Australia’s long history of racist legislation transformed the identity and experiences of his own grandfather. With so much history to weave together, and all through Joseph’s solo performance, Berger and Joseph produce beautiful moments of frenetic energy and absurd humour, and equally powerful seconds of stillness.
This emphasis on still images, turning Joseph temporarily to stone in surreal transformations, takes on yet another layer of complexity in the rich use of projection throughout Deceptive Threads. Zoe Scoglio’s projection work, with additional visuals by Hisham Tawfiqi, blends beautifully with the creative impulse present in Joseph’s performance. That identity is made up of layer upon layer of history and memory, some false and some kept secret, is made visible in this show. Mapping Joseph’s story right onto his body, we come in contact with the documents that have defined his life in an alarmingly arbitrary way, as they so often do. There is a careful and playful use of shadows in Deceptive Threads that brings out an element of the archetype, the fantastical quality in Joseph’s very real family history. Bronwyn Pringle’s lighting design, adapted for La Mama by Gina Gascoigne, brings focus to the moments of crystallisation in each story. This is not an easy task, as Joseph moves through the space almost as fast as he moves through time.
All of this, of course, could not happen without David Joseph himself. His own past and experiences are present in his story telling, his rich background in music and physical performance coming to the fore as the show reaches its climax. It is invigorating to see history come to life and engage with the present, and this is what Deceptive Threads celebrates and achieves. In a country made up of so many immigrants, whose lives have been so influenced by discriminatory and racist party politics, it is imperative that stories like Joseph’s grandfather are unearthed and retold, to remind us how far we have yet to go in unknotting the threads of Australia’s founding ideas.